Ulysses’ will

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This paper discusses the widespread strategy of controlling one’s own future behavior by imposing external constraints on possible actions – a strategy well exemplified by the episode of Ulysses and the Sirens. I first discuss the strategic use of external constraints in the context of other methods to improve self-control, showing that this strategy is ubiquitous and constitutes a proper manifestation of self-control, but not of willpower. I analyze the difference between these two concepts and the possibility of considering the use of external constraints as a way of externalizing self-control, in the vein of the extended mind hypothesis. Then I offer a game-theoretic characterization of constraint-based self-control as sequential games where each player can have limited control over the game structure, with the players being the same self at different points in time. The potential implications of this analysis are discussed, and an alternative game-theoretic representation of the strategic situation is offered, in the form of larger sequential games. The two characterizations have similar explanatory power, and they are used to diagnose the reasons behind a common failure at self-control via external constraints (advanced payment as a form of ineffective pre-commitment) and to suggest a possible remedy (advanced payment with conditional reimbursement). Finally, I discuss the implications of this approach for how rationality should be assessed in intertemporal decisions, i.e. choices that involve trade-offs between subsequent selves: I offer a critique of existing principles of diachronic rationality, and propose expected utility maximization over a collectivity of temporal selves as a viable alternative Keywords: self-control; external constraints; intertemporal choice; diachronic rationality; willpower


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